College Downs parking ban foreshadows future dilemmas

As city urbanizes, who gets to use the streets?

Weekday mornings, the residential streets of the College Downs neighborhood quickly clog with parked cars. Commuting students, faculty and staff from adjacent UNC Charlotte, compete for spots on neighborhood streets closest to the school’s main entrance only a few blocks away.

It’s been this way for about a decade. But recently a group of residents, tired of the narrow drive lanes created by endless lines of parked cars on both sides of streets, decided to act. The result: No Parking signs will go up by year’s end on all College Downs streets.

“As we saw more and more cars, the neighborhood association and some residents were beginning to have a quickly growing, us-against-them attitude. So we began to make calls,” said Ken Burrows, a 30-year College Downs resident.

The College Downs parking problem is likely a preview of issues to come, as the whole city grows denser. As multiple interests compete to use limited public space – and streets are public spaces – the question of who can and can’t use that public space is sure to arise again. Who gets to decide: homeowners or those – including renters – who need the streets for parking?

The issue came to a head when months of steady homeowner complaints prompted the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department and the Charlotte Division of Transportation to host a public meeting in October to address the issue.

With more than 100 neighborhood residents in attendance, representing all but two streets, the neighborhood voted to ban on-street parking from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays on all neighborhood streets.

What residents consider a victory is not popular with many of the students who live in or visit College Downs. With yearly commuter parking permits at UNC Charlotte costing anywhere from $190 to $415 a year, some say they can’t afford the fee. “I can choose to park on-campus or pay my rent,” said Chesnee Davis, a junior psychology major who has been parking in College Downs. “Which would you choose?”

The College Downs parking problem is emblematic of the issues that will arise as Charlotte grows denser. In addition to questions over who get to use the public streets and who makes those decisions, another question is whether property-owners’ opinions will continue to trump those of others.

The city’s urban street design guidelines list on-street parking as a design element that helps pedestrians feel safer on sidewalks. In recent years the city has added some 1,100 on-street parking spaces uptown and additional on-street spaces in neighborhoods such as Dilworth and Plaza Midwood. But the city has also restricted on-street parking in several neighborhoods. For instance, residential parking permit systems are in place in First, Third and Fourth Ward neighborhoods uptown.

The question for CDOT is where to encourage and where to discourage on-street parking, as the city grows more urban and parking problems expand. The city code gives responsibility for decisions about on-street parking to the transportation director. 

Charlotte Transportation Director Danny Pleasant recognizes that, as the city experiences growing pains, CDOT may have to adjust its approach. But for now, he said, homeowners’ interests will carry a lot of weight.

“As we urbanize and grow as a city, we will wrestle these issues,” Pleasant said in an interview. “For now we’re typically pretty sympathetic to neighborhoods in these situations.”

Even Pleasant’s own neighbors in Myers Park successfully petitioned the city to restrict parking on their street, to keep students from nearby Myers Park High School from parking there. Pleasant said he doubts residents in suburban-designed neighborhoods like Myers Park or College Downs have adopted the same mindset as more urban areas such as uptown or Dilworth.

“In neighborhoods like College Downs, they were probably built without any thought that they would be urban neighborhoods. It’s very suburban style,” said Pleasant. “I’d say it’s safe to assume the new residents don’t see themselves as being an urban neighborhood per se.”

“As we urbanize and grow as a city, we will wrestle these issues.”

Danny Pleasant, Charlotte transportation director

And Pleasant is right. The residents leading the College Downs parking restrictions effort see their neighborhood as just that, a quiet neighborhood with a unique past. “We’re a residential, quiet neighborhood that shares a history with the university,” said Burrows, who worked at the university for 30 years before retiring in 2010.

College Downs, developed primarily in the 1960s and ’70s, was home to many university employees, including the university’s female founder, Bonnie Cone. Some university employees and faculty still live in the neighborhood, but Burrows said in recent years the negative effects of commuter parking and a growing student renter population has driven most university employees elsewhere.

Residents see the parking restrictions as an opportunity to curb neighborhood deterioration they attribute to student renters and to restore the neighborhood’s history and character.

“This used to be quite the place for faculty and administrators,” said Burrows. We're hoping to encourage that to happen again.”

But cash-strapped college students have another point of view. “I understand the neighborhood complaints, but they’re across from a huge university,” said Chesnee Davis.

Davis isn’t sure what she will do when the no-parking signs go up. She said if she can’t find another free alternative to park within walking distance of the university, she’ll have to move to a new apartment complex near a bus line.

“But even then, the (university-run) bus shuttle for most of the apartments only runs until 5:30 p.m. or something. If I move and start taking the bus, I won’t be able to take my night classes,” said Davis. 

Garry Doxxy, a graduate student in the university’s theater department, isn’t nearly as concerned. He said College Downs is one of several free parking options for students.

Once the no-parking signs go up, Doxxy plans to join hundreds of his classmates already parking at nearby shopping centers, churches and apartment complexes.

“A lot of my classmates park at Harris Teeter on University City Boulevard or across North Tryon at the other grocery store,” said Davis. “They never get towed.”

While commuters like Doxxy can move their cars to avoid the new parking restrictions, students renting in College Downs, sometimes juggling up to four or five cars to a house, will be forced to think of new strategies to park their cars at their own homes.

“Parking in our driveway will be like playing Tetris,” said Heather Stallings, a junior communications major at UNC Charlotte who has rented a house in the neighborhood for two semesters.

Stallings lives with four other female students. The cul-de-sac in front of their house will now be off limits.

Stallings didn’t vote at the October meeting because she had to work her night job at a local restaurant. She’s frustrated neighbors didn’t vote for a residential parking pass program. “They know students rent here, but we’ve always gotten mixed signals from our neighbors.”

The young women say some neighbors are very helpful. “Our neighbor next door came over and fixed our sink earlier this year,” said Stallings’ roommate, Ellen Payne, a psychology major. “We talk a lot and he lets us know when something strange is going on outside.”

Other neighbors aren’t as welcoming. The students said they receive constant complaints from a man down the street who they say just doesn’t want student renters in the neighborhood.

The young women are sympathetic to neighborhood preservation efforts, but don’t understand fighting the influx of student renters.

Payne said College Downs is the one place near UNC Charlotte – which is surrounded by sprawling strip shopping centers and apartment complexes – with a traditional, college town feel.

“UNC Charlotte needs this. Students move here and students like it here,” said Payne. “Complaints can’t stop that.”